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the film criticism aspect of cyber | by maryann johanson

counting down the best films of 2006: No. 2, ‘Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan’

WHY IS THIS ONE OF THE BEST FILMS OF THE YEAR?: Even moreso than the TV version of Borat pushed TV boundaries, this film challenges our perceptions of what a film can do, what a film should do. In an arena in which art is necessarily secondary to commerce, Sacha Baron Cohen proved that making art — and not just any old art but genuine, provocative, paradigm-smashing art — and making money — and not just a coupla bucks but oodles of smackeroos — were not mutually exclusive. And he did it by taking enormous risks like we rarely see Hollywood take.

BUT ISN’T THIS JUST JACKASS WITH A FUNNY ACCENT? Borat is to Jackass what, say, Johnny Knoxville is to a Shakespearean fool. Baron Cohen doesn’t merely appropriate the in-your-face outrageousness of the likes of Jackass, he takes the structures of reality TV and turns them on themselves, forces them to become commentary on a culture that would take Andy Warhol’s prediction about everyone being famous for 15 minutes and turning in into a commandment. Western entertainment has descended to a nonstop barrage of letting everyone have their 15 as long as they’re willing to do something idiotic — eat a bug on a game show, have a family meltdown on Jerry Springer — and doing so without any sense of shame. Borat put the shame back into reality … as all the lawsuits against the film prove.
CAN BARON COHEN DO THIS AGAIN? OR IS THIS A ONE-SHOT DEAL? It’s hard to imagine Baron Cohen being able to pull off something like Borat again — too many people are wise to him … though it would be a wonderful joke if he could still make it work. If this is a one-time-only success for Baron Cohen, that doesn’t lessen its triumph at all. But I suspect he’s got plenty more up his sleeve. He’s a trickster, and trickster are good at coming at you from angles you were never expecting.

[Check out my full review of Borat here.]

[See the whole best-of list for 2006 here.]

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    One of my many problems with Borat is that Sacha Baron Cohen cannot consistently stay in character: for example, sometimes Borat’s English is pretty good, sometimes it sucks beyond belief, sometimes he uses terms that no foreigner would use, and sometimes he is not familiar with the most basic words.
    I also have some issues with the jokes (both of them). The first joke is that destitute people living in a poor country are racist and they have sex with relatives and farm animals, which is hilarious. We all heard this same joke a million times on late night TV. Of course back then the joke was about Arkansas; for one thing, nobody knew where the hell Kazakhstan was (actually my guess is people still aren’t quite sure where Kazakhstan is). More importantly though, how the hell did this stuff suddenly become funny? My sister is prostitute, ha-ha, that one really rocked. (Maybe now that a British guy is doing it, it is suddenly sophisticated…)
    The second joke of the movie is that Americans are funny for a whole bunch of reasons. For example, they try to be politically correct, but the Borat character provokes them into revealing their prejudices. Other Americans are just too damn polite to contradict the politically incorrect (or often just plain rude) stranger. The car salesman of course does not care one way or another, he would be happy to sell the chick magnet to anyone. While these observations about Americans are certainly not original, with some talent, the material might be worth a 15 minute skit. But a whole movie? The best comedy of 2006? Better than Lil’ Miss Sunshine? You gotta be kidding.
    Another thing that kept bothering me: Borat was supposed to make fun of the whole “reality” genre and watching it does feel like watching any reality show on TV, but not in a good way. The audience has no idea which interactions among the characters are genuine, and which scenes have been rigged. The Pamela Anderson scene is obviously fake, but one does wonder which other characters were also in on the joke (maybe the ones who did not sue…). It is kind of ironic that scenes from a mockumentary like Best in Show often feel more “real” and less orchestrated than anything in the entire Borat movie.
    I did love one of the scenes though. (I also liked the pirated looking DVD, but that was not really part of the movie.) My favorite part is when Borat and his producer fight: it is surreal, over-the-top, unexpected and yet somehow it seemed like a genuine (although really weird) fight; I was rolling on the floor. So yeah, there were a few funny moments, but not nearly enough for an 80 minute film. In one word: overrated.

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